I really, really like to walk, but today it made me sick. I’m lucky to live in an area brimming with options; I’m about 30 minutes away from one of the largest forests in South England, 10 minutes away from the sea, and 2 from a river and nature reserve, and as I chucked a ball into the river for my dogs, not a soul in sight, I was close to screaming with rage.
Functioning while wracked with guilt is a challenging task. I’ve been going through the motions of all that I’m expected to do – go to work, check, do the laundry, check, walk the dogs, check, make casual conversation, check, and it has completely and utterly exhausted me.
Years ago, there was an ad on TV for Glucon-D, where the sun has a straw in people, sapping their energy till they collapse. The ad feels like an omen, playing and replaying in my mind all these years later.
As India collapses under the staggering weight of Coronavirus, I’m 5,000 miles away, surrounded by pretty trees and burgeoning spring, throwing balls into a river for my dogs to retrieve. As my 86-year-old grandmother sits locked in her house, alone and making casual jokes about death, I am planting dahlias in glazed pots.
My phone dings me news throughout the day – words recycled so much they’ve lost their impact. Death, hospital lines, death, the Bengal elections, death, Remdesivir, death, oxygen, death, death, death. I turn off the notifications, try to catch my breath, sick irony, turn back, turn them on. My hand shakes as I hold my phone and read, pushing through the notifications. I am not there. I am safe. It’s the least I can do. There must be more I can do.
I donate as much as I can. Then I feel guilty. I donate some more. I call my grandmother. I think she’s getting sick of me. I call her incessantly, texting when I can’t speak, checking, talking, checking, protecting her in the only way I know how. I lose my patience with one of her maids, snap at her through Whatsapp video for meeting a friend at the park. She volleys it back to me, about why I’m not there. A smash. I’m out.
I text people on Whatsapp, try to help people get oxygen, the middle of a conversation with someone in the hospital, I hover by the break room door. I’m meant to be back out now, I shouldn’t be slouching around the store room, what would my manager say? What will I say? It’s a matter of life or death, sir, literally. But the lights are bright and the café is playing joyful jazz. Death doesn’t touch us here, it’s a different world.
Straddling the two has me in the splits and I can feel my body ripping at the seams, my lungs splitting and my ribs pulling apart. Roast me on an open fire and call it a barbeque.
It’s funny to talk about how difficult it is to be far away from where the sky is falling. It feels like a betrayal to move the conversation, take the spotlight away for even a second from those in need to this comparatively paltry issue. But I am not the only one. I can’t be. Being away from home and family as they live through a pandemic is sickening, in a creeping, quiet way.
You feel worried for their safety, you feel concerned for your home, you feel survivor’s guilt for not being there, in the midst of the horror, with everyone you know and love. It feels like a betrayal. Every moment you don’t wallow, every moment you forget comes back to you like a knife in the stomach. How lucky you are to have the privilege to forget. That Krispy Kreme comes back to haunt you. How dare you eat a doughnut and forget that the country is burning?
If you, like me, have a case of survivor’s guilt and are trapped miles away, feeling useless and drowning in your own futility, I have little sage advice for you. I am in this hole too, and I have yet to find the light. The only insight I can offer is that being paralysed by your inability to fix everything is not an answer.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the mammoth task in front of us, to feel inept enough to be lulled into docility, but we must fight that. Doing a little bit will always be better than doing nothing. So spare a bit of money, even £5, if that’s all you have to give.
With people isolating, conversations are at a premium, so talk to your friends, your grandparents. You may not physically be able to move them out of harm’s way, but you can help with morale. Hold your government accountable. Push for more protective measures. These are tiny things, a text here, a tweet there, that will build, hopefully into a crescendo of support and love for those who need it.
Equally important, take it easy on yourself. You’re just a person. Throw that ball, plant those dahlias, because you’re at your most useful when you’re healthy and happy. It’s okay to be okay (even when nobody else is).
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.
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